Penguins General Manager Ray Shero
General manager Ray Shero and the Penguins front office has been busy the last seven days making several roster moves that speak to their plans for the future. They have:
- Traded defenseman Ben Lovejoy to the Anaheim Ducks.
- Traded forward Eric Tangradi to the Winnipeg Jets.
- Promoted forward Beau Bennett to the NHL from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Additionally, defensemen Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen returned from injuries while defenseman Dylan Reese was returned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
What does all this mean? Let’s look at it transaction by transaction and try to shed some light on the future of the 2013 Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Artist Formerly Known as Pittsburgh's Other Big Ben
The departure of Lovejoy opened up a roster spot for defenseman Robert Bortuzzo to remain a full-time member of the NHL club. This move was not necessarily a surprise as Lovejoy had been a healthy scratch for several games leading up to his trade.
The Penguins started the year with eight defensemen on the NHL roster and now sit with seven. When healthy, their defensive pairings shake out like this:
Brooks Orpik - Paul Martin
Kris Letang - Simon Despres
Matt Niskanen - Deryk Engelland / Robert Bortuzzo
Engelland is a solid defenseman, but his upside is limited and he’s made a handful of bad decisions in the past several games. His toughness can’t be matched, though his defensive prowess is matched by Bortuzzo.
Expect Bortuzzo to earn more playing time as the season progresses and be on the lookout for Engelland to be potential trade bait.
The trade of Eric Tangradi was a bittersweet moment for fans. On one hand, Tangradi was nothing short of terrible at the NHL level as a Penguin: In 45 games he scored once and had four assists.
On the other, Tangradi was a dominant force in the AHL. In three seasons (144 games) he scored 50 goals (scoring on 13.9 % of his shots) and had 53 assists.
Tangradi’s potential seemed so real that Pens fans (and presumably management) were stunned to see him consistently struggle to fit in on NHL ice. Many wanted him gone long ago while others felt that he needed more time in the NHL to hit his stride.
He’s an imposing force at 6’4” and 221 pounds, and all indications at the AHL level were that he could score, hit and set up players at an extremely high level. He had all the makings of the perfect power forward destined to fit in alongside Crosby or Malkin, eating up large chunks of ice defensively and causing hell in front of opposing goaltenders.
But the potential never materialized.
Maybe it was the pressure of expectation that kept Tangradi from blossoming fully in Pittsburgh. The change of scenery may very well be what the big forward needs to take the next step in his professional career. But his time in Pittsburgh had run out. He was not getting minutes and he was the third of three options for the second line behind Zach Boychuk and Dustin Jeffrey.
Tangradi’s departure has opened the door for the highly touted prospect Beau Bennett.
Bennett is expected to make his NHL debut tonight when the Pens play Winnipeg, with Pittsburgh hoping that he is the elusive top-six forward it has been seeking to round out its offense.
It remains to be seen where Bennett will play. He practiced Thursday on the third line with Zach Boychuk and Tyler Kennedy, but with Malkin and Brandon Sutter taking the day off, it’s hard to assign any significance to this setup.
On Wednesday night Zach Boychuk, who has started the last six games at right wing with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, found himself replaced by Matt Cooke about halfway through the game. Boychuk looked overwhelmed and confused in the first period on the Malkin line (as has been the case for much of his time as a Penguin), and Matt Cooke played admirably, notching an assist—something no other Penguin has managed to do on that line this season.
That said, Cooke is not a second line player. He is most effective skating on the third line where the emphasis is forechecking and lining up against opposing team’s top lines in a defensive role. The promotion of Bennett likely means that Cooke will return to his longstanding role as a fixture on the Penguins’ third line while Bennett plays with Malkin and Neal.
So where does Zach Boychuk go from here? Beau Bennett has not been promoted to be a once-every-three-games fill-in or dawdle on the fourth line playing eight minutes a night. He’s here to be a top-six player, meaning the top two lines will look a little something like this:
Bennett / Kunitz - Crosby - Dupuis
Bennett / Kunitz - Malkin - Neal
(For what it’s worth, I like the idea of returning Kunitz to the Malkin line to try to rekindle some of the magic those three created last year).
Perhaps Boychuk will wind up on the third line, if the speculation by Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers comes to pass.
Colligan tweeted on Thursday the following:
Reading between the lines & based on Ray Shero comments last night, starting to think Tyler Kennedys [sic] time with #Pens reaching critical point
Shero: "With TK, and I know the coaches have talked to him, he's a guy that needs to pick up his play and it's important for him to do so"
Strong words from a general manager who typically keeps a low profile and rarely speaks negatively about a player. I think it’s safe for Tyler Kennedy to consider himself officially on notice.
Kennedy has not been much of a factor on the scoresheet, having recorded only one goal, one assist and converting on a career-low 3.2 percent of shots taken. Kennedy is a valuable forechecker who delivers consistently high-energy shifts and does a nice job of getting pucks deep, but his lack of production is dismaying. Kennedy simply must show up more in the box score.
If Shero makes a move at the deadline, it will be for a top-six winger, and top-six wingers don’t come cheap. Shero will likely have to part with a couple high-value prospects, a draft pick and potentially a current player like Kennedy.
Much of what Shero decides to do depends on how smoothly Beau Bennett transitions to the NHL. If he finds his comfort level and begins producing on one of the top two lines before April 3, Shero may choose to stand pat.
The Penguins are 9-5-0 and currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They’re all but a lock for the playoffs and likely will be for years to come. But with the concentration of talent in the Pittsburgh locker room, merely making it to the postseason is not enough.
After two consecutive seasons of the Penguins failing to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, Ray Shero seems determined to make the necessary changes to propel this team to the next level. Will the promotion of Beau Bennett be the spark? Will it take a mammoth trade at the deadline?
We’ll find out.